With more than 166 sites of archaeological interest, the tiny island group of Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre and Eynhallow in the Orkneys are astonishing. They are home to the greatest density of chambered Neolithic tombs in the world – including one that’s two storeys tall. Rousey is the largest of these islands and is just 5 miles across! Wyre is around 1000 yards long, but much thinner, and Eynhallow is just 75 Hectares. Having visited Rousey this April I am still stunned. Here, though just covering a few of the sites, is why.
Set on the forshore directly overlooking one of the most dangerous tidal races in the world, Midhowe (named as the middle of three brochs and not to be confused with Orkney’s Minehowe) is the “great ship of death.” It is the site of both a major Neolithic cairn (burial mound) and a well preserved broch. A broch is a type of Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure only found in Scotland and it represents some of the world’s most sophisticated examples of drystone structures.
Midhowe Chambered Cairn
Neolithic Midhowe is the world’s largest known “stalled” cairn and is exceptionally well preserved with 12 pairs of stalls set on either side of a central passageway, most tombs of this type have four or less. The walls still stand over eight feet high and though the structure of the original roof is unclear, it was probably made from flat slabs some 10 feet above the ground. The cairn was open for burials and re-burials, from around 3300 BC to 2100 BC – soon after the first farmers appeared in the Orkneys around 4000 BC. It is a massive 108 feet long.
The barrow is supported by three concentric stone casing walls that overlap each other to form a step-like structure. Some of the stones in the walls are laid out in a decorative style that resemble the patterns on the pottery of the period. Unlike other tombs of this type, it had a horned forecourt on one side of the barrow that may have been a ceremonial area that would have been capable of holding hundreds of people.
The remains of at least 25 individuals were found in the tomb. Several of the skeletons were in a crouched position on shelves, their backs to the side wall and heads resting against the supporting pillars. Other groups of bones were heaped into the centres of the shelves or swept under them, suggesting that earlier burials had been removed to make way for more recent ones. A few skulls were present, and in one instance long bones had been piled together and the skull placed on top.
Bones from a variety of animals were also discovered including ox, sheep, skua, cormorant, buzzard, eagle, gannet, and carrion-crow.
Set behind a rock-cut ditch, Iron Age Midhowe Broch was built around 2000 years after the adjacent Midhowe Cairn and was by far the largest building of a small but well laid out village. It may have been built by a powerful extended family to demonstrate their influence and control over the area. Like all brochs, it would have been built to be easily defended against attack, and although the inhabitants may have indulged in their own raiding parties at times, they would probably have been more wealthy farmers rather than others.
To me the most unexpected finds at Midhowe were Roman Samian ware pottery shards. Although the islands were never invaded by the Romans (who actually did subdue mainland Scotland but then withdrew of their own accord!) there are records that Orcadian emissaries made a formal submission to the Roman Emperor Claudius at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. It is also said that, to avoid possible devastation by the advancing Romans, the canny Orcadians actually arrived from the south.
The majority of finds during the excavation were domestic items, tools, whetstones, quern stones etc. However, bronze jewellery was also found and hints at the wealth and status of the people living there. Evidence also implies that a bronze-worker was based at Midhowe. However, as only a small quantity of metal working debris was uncovered, he was probably a travelling artisan.
Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tomb
This round cairn is about 30 ft in diameter and is a very rare two storey cairn, though there was originally no interconnection between floors and they had separate entrances. The lower chamber is reached by a 19ft passage and is 12 x 5ft in area by just five feet high, divided into four cells with upright stone slabs. The upper chamber is reached by an 11ft long passage, and is divided into two compartments. The cairn is built on a hillside so each passage is at ground level, one uphill, the other down.
The upper chamber contained the bones of at least three people set on stone shelves, including one in a crouching position. There were three heaps of cremated bones in the passage which had subsequently been blocked. The upper chamber had the cremated bones of an adult and a child, which were probably put there late in the tomb’s use, with earlier remains being removed. Archaeologists also found large amounts of pottery along with flint and stone tools but none of the animal bones which typify other Orkney burial cairns.
Just six feet away is a tiny second cairn which held well-preserved pottery vessels, it is thought this cairn may have been ceremonial. It is just big enough for a person to get comfortably inside. I know, I tried.
This stalled Cairn dates from around 3,000 BC and is divided into seven compartments by pairs of upright stone slabs. A horrible concrete modern roof covers the original structure, which is some 40 feet long and has, like Midhowe, a distinct decorative design incorporated into its outer facing. The stones making the outside wall were slanted to form a triangular pattern, similar to Unstan ware pottery, one of the two contemporary types.
Two male skeletons were found inside the tomb, one in the most westerly compartment, the other lying in the entrance passage. Again the tomb had probably been cleared of earlier burials.
Finds included – stone and flint tools, the remains of an Unstan-style bowl, a finely-made flint knife, two scrapers and five flint splinters. Scattered throughout the cairn were bones of sheep, ox, red deer, geese, red deer, gannets and cormorants, many of which showed signs of burning.
Knowe of Yarso Cairn
This 50ft long Neolithic stalled cairn is divided into four compartments. Its walls are made in the then local tradition of a double stonework skin, one slanting over and overlaying the top of the other.
The bones of 29 people were found here, with 17 skulls carefully arranged beside the wall in groups facing inwards. The bones were disarticulated but organised. 36 deer bones were also found.
Other finds included flint knives and pottery shards. Many of these showed scorch marks – as did some of the upper stonework in the chamber, so fires were probably lighted inside the chamber as part of the funerary rites. The tomb was in use from 2900 BC until around 1900 BC, based on finds and current dating techniques.
This island lies just a stone’s throw across the water from Rousey, and is steeped in legend and history. It is home to Cubbie Roo’s Norse Castle and a Norse Church. Little remains of the castle (we met the friendly owner-farmer in a pub and he told us that he uses its diminutive remaining walls to shelter fertilizer). The castle is mentioned twice in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga but has never been excavated. It was built by Kolbein Hruga, one of the landed magnates established here by Earl Thorfinn and dates from around 1150 AD.
The small island of Egilsay is dominated by St Magnus Church, where Earl Magnus was murdered in 1117, a deed which eventually led his nephew into building the Orkneys’ magnificent Cathedral of St Magnus in Kirkwall. (Aside: nearly a thousand chairs for this cathedral were bought from High Wycombe in 1910 for 9/11d each – most were recently sold off by the cathedral – at a profit, ! A few are still in daily use there). The Egilsay church is one of only two remaining examples of the distinctive round-towered churches built by the Vikings.
The tiny and now uninhabited Eynhallow — the Norsemen’s Eyin Helga, or Holy Island, has a special place in Orkney tradition and folklore. At the centre of the island are the ruins of a chapel, which may have formed part of an early Christian monastic settlement. The photo below shows Eynhallow, and was taken from a tiny open ferry with wild waves that totally covered us with salt and water as we said our farewell to the Islands.
By Gerry Palmer